What I Saw in California
By Edwin Bryant
Public Domain Books
Rate of Wages Mode of procuring the Gold Extent of Gold Region Price of Provisions.
It will be seen, from the later accounts that each new report continues to realize the wildest expectation. The following letter dated Monterey, November 16th, is highly interesting–
“We can now call ourselves citizens of the United States. We have now only to go by law, as we formerly went by custom; that is, when Congress gives us a government and code. The old foreign residents of California, having done very well ten or twenty years without law, care but very little whether Congress pays early or late attention to the subject. Those who have emigrated from the Atlantic States within the last three or four years deem the subject an important one; I only call it difficult. The carrying out a code of laws, under existing circumstances, is far from being an easy task. The general Government may appoint governors, secretaries, and other public functionaries; and judges, marshals, collectors, etc., may accept offices with salaries of 3000 or 4000 dollars per annum; but how they are to obtain their petty officers, at half these sums, remains to be seen. The pay of a member of Congress will be accepted here by those alone who do not know enough to better themselves. Mechanics can now get 10 to 16 dollars per day; labourers on the wharfs or elsewhere, 5 to 10 dollars; clerks and storekeepers, 1000 to 3000 dollars per annum–some engage to keep store during their pleasure at 8 dollars per day, or 1 lb. or 1-1/2 lb. of gold per month; cooks and stewards, 60 to 100 dollars per month. In fact, labour of every description commands exorbitant prices.
“The Sandwich Islands, Oregon, and Lower California are fast parting with their inhabitants, all bound for this coast, and thence to the great ’placer’ of the Sacramento Valley, where the digging and washing of one man that does not produce 100 troy ounces of gold, 23 carats, from the size of a half spangle to one pound in a month, sets the digger to ’prospecting,’ that is, looking for better grounds. Your ’Paisano’ can point out many a man who has, for fifteen to twenty days in succession, bagged up five to ten ounces of gold a-day. Our placer, or gold region, now extends over 300 or 400 miles of country, embracing all the creeks and branches on the east side of the river Sacramento and one side of the San Joaquin. In my travels I have, when resting under a tree and grazing my horse, seen pieces of pure gold taken from crevices of the rocks or slate where we were stopping. On one occasion, nooning or refreshing on the side of a stream entirely unknown to diggers or ’prospectors,’ or rather, if known not attended to, one of my companions, while rolling in the sand, said, ’Give me a tin pan; why should we not be cooking in gold sand?’ He took a pan, filled it with sand, washed it out, and produced in five minutes two or three dollars’ worth of gold, merely saying, as he threw both pan and gold on the sand, ’I thought so.’ Perhaps it is fair that your readers should learn, that, however plenty the Sacramento Valley may afford gold, the obtaining of it has its disadvantages. From the 1st of July to the 1st of October, more or less, one half of the people will have fever and ague, or intermittent fever. In the winter, it is too cold to work in the water. Some work in the sand by washing from the surface in a wooden bowl, or tin pan; some gouge it out from the rocks or slate; the more lazy ones roll about and pick up the large pieces, leaving the small gold for the next emigration. The extent of the gold region on the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers extends a distance of 800 miles in length by 100 in width. It embraces not only gold, but quantities of quicksilver in almost general abundance. It is estimated that a small population actively engaged in mining operations in that region could export 100,000,000 dollars in gold in every year, and that an increased population might increase that amount to 300,000,000 dollars annually. You may believe me when I say that for some time to come California will export, yearly, nearly or quite 500,000 ounces of gold, 22 to 24 carats fine; some pieces of that will weigh 16 lbs., very many 1 lb. Many men who began last June to dig gold with a capital of 50 dollars can now show 5000 to 15,000 dollars. I saw a man to-day making purchases of dry goods, etc., for his family, lay on the counter a bag of raw hide, well sewed up, containing 109 ounces. I observed, ’That is a good way to pack gold dust.’ He very innocently replied, ’All the bags I brought down are that way; I like the size!’ Five such bags in New York would bring nearly 10,000 dollars. This man left his family last August. Three months’ digging and washing, producing four or five bags, of 100 ounces each, is better than being mate of a vessel at 40 dollars per month, as the man formerly was. His companion, a Mexican, who camped and worked with him, only had two or three cow-hide bags of gold. In this tough, but true, golden tale, you must not imagine that all men are equally successful. There are some who have done better, even to 4000 dollars in a month; many 1000 dollars during the summer; and others, who refused to join a company of gold-washers who had a cheap-made machine, and receive one ounce per day, that returned to the settlement with not a vest pocket-full of gold. Some left with only sufficient to pay for a horse and saddle, and pay the physician six ounces of gold for one ounce of quinine, calomel, and jalap in proportion. An ounce of gold for advice given, six ounces a visit, brings the fever and ague to be rather an expensive companion. A ’well’ man has his proportionate heavy expenses also, to reduce his piles or bags of gold. Dry beef in the settlements, at 4 cents per lb., at the Placer, 1 to 2 dollars per lb.; salt beef and pork, 50 to 100 dollars per barrel; flour, 30 to 75 dollars per barrel; coffee, sugar, and rice, 50 cents to 1 dollar per lb. As washing is 50 cents to 1 dollar a garment, many prefer throwing away their used-up clothes to paying the washerwoman; that is, if they intend returning to the settlements soon, where they can purchase more. As to shaving, I have never seen a man at the Placer who had time to perform that operation. They do not work on Sundays, only brush up the tent, blow out the emery or fine black sand from the week’s work. Horses that can travel only one day, and from that to a week, are from 100 to 300 dollars. Freight charge by launch owners for three days’ run, 5 dollars per barrel. Wagoners charge 50 to 100 dollars per load, 20 to 50 miles, on good road. Corn, barley, peas, and beans, 10 dollars a-bushel. Common pistols, any price; powder and lead very dear. I know a physician who, in San Francisco, purchased a common made gold-washer at 20 or 30 dollars, made of 70 or 80 feet of boards. At a great expense he boated it up to the first landing on the Sacramento, and there met a wagoner bound to one of the diggings with an empty wagon, distant about 50 miles. The wagoner would not take up the machine under 100 dollars. The doctor had to consent, and bided his time. June passed over, rich in gold; all on that creek did wonders, when the wagoner fell sick, called on his friend the doctor, whose tent was in sight; the doctor came, but would not administer the first dose under the old sum of 100 dollars, which was agreed to, under a proviso that the following doses should be furnished more moderate. When a man’s time is worth 100 dollars a-day, to use a spade and tin pan, neither doctors nor wagoners can think much of a pound of gold, and you may suppose merchants, traders, and pedlars are not slow to make their fortunes in these golden times. In San Francisco there is more merchandize sold now, monthly, than before in a year. Vessels after vessels arrive, land their cargoes, dispose of them, and bag up the dust and lay up the vessel, as the crew are soon among the missing. The cleanest clear out is where the captain follows the crew. There are many vessels in San Francisco that cannot weigh anchor, even with the assistance of three or four neighbouring vessels. Supercargoes must land cargo on arriving, or have no crew to do it for them. Some vessels continue to go to sea, with small crews, at 50 dollars per month for green hands. Old hands are too wise for them, and prefer digging an ounce or two a-day, and drinking hock and champagne at half an ounce a-bottle, and eating bad sea bread at 1 dollar per pound. I have seen a captain of a vessel, who, by his old contract in the port whence he sailed, was getting 60 dollars per month, paying his cook 75 dollars, and offering 100 dollars per month for a steward; his former crew, even to his mates, having gone a ’prospecting.’ Uncle Sam’s ships suffer a little the same way, although they offer from 200 to 500 dollars for the apprehension of a deserter. The Ohio, however, laid in the port of Monterey about a month, and lost only 20 or 30 men. Colonel Stevenson’s regiment is disbanded, 99 out of 100 of whom have also gone ’prospecting,’ including the colonel, who arrived in Monterey last month, from his last post, and was met by his men at the edge of the town, to escort and cheer him into the town. The captains, etc., have bought up country carts and oxen, turned drivers, and gone to the Placer. Our worthy governor, Colonel of the 1st Dragoons, etc., having plenty of carts, wagons, horses, and mules, with a few regulars left, has also gone, but under better advantages, for the second or third time, to see the Placer and the country, and have justice done to his countrymen or himself. Commodore Jones, lately arrived in Monterey, supposed it to be the capital, head-quarters, etc., but found not even the Governor left. Where head-quarters are may be uncertain, whether in Monterey, Sutter’s Fort, or in a four-mule wagon travelling over the gold region. Now, whether headquarters are freighted with munitions of war, etc., or whether the cargo consists of blankets, shirts, etc., to clothe the suffering Indians, for the paltry consideration of gold, no one cares or knows; but the principle should be, that, if privates can or will be off making their thousands, those who are better able should not go goldless.”
The Washington Union contains a letter from Lieutenant Larkin, dated Monterey, November 16, received at the State Department, containing further confirmation of the previous despatches, public and private, and far outstripping all other news in its exciting character. The gold was increasing in size and quality daily. Lumps were found weighing from one to two pounds. Several had been heard of weighing as high as 16 pounds, and one 25 pounds. Many men, who were poor in June, were worth 30,000 dollars, by digging and trading with the Indians. 100 dollars a-day is the average amount realized daily, from July to October. Half the diggers were sick with fevers, though not many deaths had occurred among them. The Indians would readily give an ounce of gold for a common calico shirt; others were selling for ten dollars each in specie. The gold region extends over a track of 300 miles, and it was not known that it did not extend 1000. A letter from Commodore Jones states that many of the petty officers and men had deserted and gone in search of the gold. He adds, the Indians were selling gold at 50 cents the ounce. Many vessels were deserted by captain, cook, and seamen. The ship Isaac Walton offered discharged soldiers 50 dollars per month to go to Callao, which was refused. She was supplied by government sailors. All the naval vessels on the coast were short of hands. Nearly the whole of the 3rd Artillery had deserted. Provisions were scarce and high; board, 4 dollars a-day; washing, 6 dollars a-dozen. Merchants’ clerks get from 2000 to 3000 dollars a-year.